Kigali, capital of one of the poorest countries of Africa, recently hosted the fifth International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP), sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health (which is based at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health) and the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Rwanda. It was reported that over 3,700 people from 110 countries attended and nearly 100 exhibitors presented their offerings.
Rwanda was chosen as the venue because in just a few years the country has become a poster child for the reproductive rights and population agenda. Having set up family-planning clinics throughout the country, the Health Ministry has been instrumental in increasing modern contraceptive use from 4 percent in 2000 to 48 percent in 2015, while succeeding in bringing down the country’s fertility rate from 5.8 per woman of childbearing age to 4.2 over the same period.
“Investing for a Lifetime of Returns” was the conference theme. Participants included members of the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition, which represents over 450 service providers and manufacturers in the family-planning field—a good opportunity, no doubt, to network and find new markets for their goods and services.
As with previous ICFP conferences, the Kigali meeting was a showcase for advocates of family planning as well as manufacturers of family-planning products of all sorts, including abortifacients. There was a significant educational aspect. Many of the dozens of presentations were aimed at young people, especially those in poor countries, as they are considered to be the primary consumers of the services and products on offer. No effort was spared in reaching all ages; some messages were conveyed using “artistic storytelling” and “giant puppets.”
Faith-based institutions were another primary target. Many have extensive health, clinic, and hospital operations in some of the poorest and most remote parts of the world—places the family-planning crowd would like to tap into for possible use of their distributional capacity.
Among the conference’s features was an inaugural “FPitchfest” at which 10 CEO’s in the reproductive-health and family-planning business were able to tout their innovative and transformative products while an attentive audience voted to select the best “pitch.” The winner was the president of the Population Council, who presented the organization’s work on creating a male contraceptive gel.
A number of awards were handed out at the conference, including a Global Humanitarian Award for Women’s and Children’s Health, a Young Maverick Award (given to a young philanthropist who “revolutionized” youth access to reproductive healthcare), and a number of Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Such a mega conference could not be put on without a guarantee of monetary pledges for the cause. Not surprisingly, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced they were establishing a special $18 million family-planning fund for the “Ouagadougou Partnership,” which will assist nine mainly French African countries in securing family-planning “commodities” (as contraceptives are often referred to), $3 million of which was allocated to “matching funds” on a two-for-one dollar basis to encourage other donors to chip in. UNFPA Supplies, an arm of the United Nations Population Fund, will manage the effort.
The Department for International Development—the foreign assistance agency of the United Kingdom—pledged approximately $260 million for a new initiative called “Women’s Integrated Sexual Health” (with a new acronym, WISH) to make available to couples in some of the poorest countries of the world “lifesaving voluntary contraception”—whatever that may be!
The Minister of International Development of Canada offered nearly $80 million to assure access to family planning as well as safe and legal abortion. These funds will come from the C$650 million pledge the Canadian government announced in response to—and to counteract—the United States’ termination of funding abortion-related activities in poor countries.
Evidently these major monetary commitments reinforced the “investment for a lifetime of returns” conference theme. However, it is not clear how there can be a genuine “investment” in lives that will never be conceived, born, or lived. A curious “return” indeed!